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The story of the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign to free a Guantanamo prisoner

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, said of the Save Shaker Campaign: they “are ordinary people doing extraordinary things”.

Shaker Aamer

Friday 30th October 2015 was the day, British resident Shaker Aamer came back to the UK after over thirteen years in Guantanamo. It was a day we feared would never happen!

At last, now, Shaker is safe and receiving good medical care to help him recover from his nightmare ordeal in the US torture camp. As we celebrate the amazing news of Shaker’s return, we can reflect on our campaign to “Save Shaker Aamer.”

The Save Shaker Aamer Campaign was established in 2009 following a public meeting in Battersea called to raise awareness that a South London Man was still imprisoned in Guantanamo.

The local Mosque hosted our first meeting.  Battersea resident, Ray Silk, from the Wandsworth Stop the War Coalition, became Secretary.

From the beginning, the campaign has had a wide base, uniting local activists, the wider community and the Muslim community. Salim Akbar, the Mosque’s youth worker, was a key supporter. Imam Suliman Gani and members of Shaker’s family joined us in our campaign to bring Shaker Aamer home.  Martin Linton, former MP for Battersea, attended the first event when we read poems and readings at the peace pagoda in Battersea Park to mark Shaker Aamer’s birthday.

Our aim was to publicise the gross injustice to Shaker Aamer and to call for his release and return to the UK from detention without charge or trial in Guantanamo. We had only one resource – our determination to do everything we could to help bring Shaker Aamer home. The US and the UK Governments had utterly failed him. They had their own reasons to leave him to rot in Guantanamo. Amnesty, the London Guantanamo Campaign, peace groups and Muslim support groups were also calling for Shaker’s release.

The brilliant Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, the legal charity, was acting for Shaker. The ex-Guantanamo prisoners’ advocacy group, Cage, Victoria Brittain, Andy Worthington and Yvonne Ridley, peace activists Bruce Kent, Kate Hudson and Lindsey German, and MEP, Jean Lambert, and many, many others, campaigned with us. Later, “We Stand With Shaker” brought the support of celebrities to add to the demand for Shaker’s freedom.

Shaker’s story is well-known but it must not be forgotten. The US violated international humanitarian law with the “war on terror” rendition policy following 9/11. Foreign nationals, such as Shaker Aamer, working in Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries, fled from the US/UK carpet bombing of Afghanistan.

Before Shaker could reach the Pakistan border, he was abducted, sold for a bounty, brutally interrogated and tortured and transported to Guantanamo, a US military facility, occupied illegally, on the island of Cuba. Shaker was taken at random, for information he might have, not for any crime. He was never on “a battlefield.”

The Labour Government participated in the rendition programme. UK airports were used for secret CIA flights. Foreign Secretary at the time, Jack Straw, agreed that UK detainees, including Shaker, should be sent to Guantanamo as the “preferred option” even after knowing that they had been tortured. His only request was that UK agents should interrogate them before they were transported!

Many of Shaker’s supporters had campaigned for the release of other UK Guantanamo prisoners. We refused to stop protesting until the last Guantanamo prisoner was home. Shaker Aamer was held for six years longer than the other 15 UK Guantanamo prisoners. He was cruelly punished for challenging the daily abuse and torture to himself and others. His courage was rewarded with brutality, solitary confinement and medical neglect. Shaker feared that he would die in Guantanamo.

The Save Shaker Aamer Campaign met monthly to plan actions. There was much to do. We wrote Fact Sheets, printed leaflets and petitions, produced cards and model letters. We wrote to US Presidents, MPs and Prime Ministers and wrote letters to the press. We gained support from humanitarian campaigns and peace groups and local and national political parties.

We held weekly stalls and organised marches, public meetings and demonstrations in Battersea, outside Downing Street, New Scotland Yard, the US Embassy, the MI6 Building and opposite Parliament. Spectacle, an independent film company, produced a DVD of our campaign to mark Shaker Aamer’s 10 years in Guantanamo. 

Amnesty, CND and MPs Caroline Lucas, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Siddiq Khan became active supporters. Jane Ellison newly elected in 2010 as Conservative MP for Battersea, actively supported Shaker’s family and called for Shaker’s release. MP John McDonnell sponsored an Early Day Motion in support of our campaign calling for MPs to demand Shaker’s release and return to the UK.

Every Wednesday, when Parliament was sitting, we held vigils opposite Parliament. Often we were soaked in the rain, blown by strong gusts of wind or baked in the sun. As MPs skirted the crowded pavements, they could not fail to see us standing with our placards and banners. We wore orange boiler-suits and   orange badges, showing Shaker’s number 239. We wore black hoods. We bought chains to show how the US humiliates its captives – held without any human rights. We wore face-masks and ear-muffs as used in Guantanamo, to disorient prisoners and subject them to sensory deprivation.

The e-petition launched by Saeed Siddique, Shaker’s father-in-law, called on the UK Government to take new initiatives to require the US to release Shaker Aamer to his home and family in the UK. We petitioned for public support with   street stalls and meetings in London, Luton, Birmingham, Bristol, Brighton. Lewes, Canterbury, Norwich and Wales. The e-petition achieved over 117,400 signatures. This ensured that there could be a debate in Parliament.

In June 2013, an adjournment debate for Shaker Aamer was held in Westminster Hall. But we wanted a full debate in Parliament. On March 17 this year, the debate was held in the House of Commons led by John McDonnell. The motion called on the US to release Shaker Aamer and allow him to return home. It was unanimous with MPs from all main political parties calling for Shaker’s release. This was a great achievement for both MPs and supporters for Shaker.  

John McDonnell took up two further SSAC proposals – to set up an All Political Party Group for Shaker Aamer and send a parliamentary delegation of MPs to Washington. His support for our campaign and for Shaker has been truly outstanding.

In May, the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign raised sufficient funds for the delegation. MPs Jeremy Corbyn, Andy Slaughter, Andrew Mitchell and David Davis met with US Senators, including John McCain, to plead for Shaker’s return. SSAC supporter, Becky, raised over £3000 in sponsorship by remaining in a “cage” for 14 hours in Trafalgar Square, to contribute to the cost of the delegation!

The Save Shaker Aamer Campaign plans to continue to be watchful for Shaker Aamer’s safety. We will carry on campaigning until his full story is told. We must not allow this terrible travesty of justice to be yesterday’s news. It must never   happen again.     

Joy Hurcombe, Chair of the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign. Contact: 01903 206588 / 07919556850

Dedicated to the memory of SSAC supporters Salim Akbar and Hannah Purbrick. 

Source: Stop the War Coalition

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